The Year They Burned The Books
by: Nancy Garden
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, NY 1999
I found this to be a surprisingly emotional novel. It’s a high school drama seeped in political discourse. The main characters are the student staff of the school paper. These are kids who believe what they’ve been taught about journalism and freedom of the press. When local conservative Christians rise up to moderate the content of the school paper these students fight for their journalistic integrity.
I suspect this novel was written specifically because Nancy Garden had a previous book banned from school libraries. The town meeting scene where they debate maintaining morality for the children could have been taken directly from a transcript. This story manages to touch just about every imaginable red button topic that has caused books to be banned.
Having said that, I was impressed (and marginally disappointed) with where Garden drew her lines. There is no explicit teen sex. However, the sex education curriculum and the availability of free condoms in the high school nurses office make the issue of teen sex a large theme. Several of the main characters are gay, and in various stages of acceptance. Teen suicide is touched on, but we do not lose any of the characters in the book. Book burning happens, but the people having the bonfire used books they’d purchased, not the library books they represented.
One of the issues is that an opinion piece in the paper should not have to present both sides of the conflict. It’s an opinion, not the news. The students actually work very hard to find contradictory opinions and even their articles nod at some validity in their oppositions viewpoints. This book as a whole tries to do the same.
All of the characters, even the self righteous ones, are drawn with some depth. Everyone is portrayed as trying to do the best they can for what they believe to be right. The gay characters are harassed and struggle internally with their identities. They are not “out loud and proud” and they are very aware of the risks of simply allowing themselves to be who they are.
This really is a teen driven story. The adult characters have weight and impact, but it is the teens who are affected. I would highly recommend this book as support for kids questioning their own identities. I would also recommend this book to people who are friends and parents of those kids.